Thursday, August 26, 2010

Making Mid-Century Modern

Recent trends have embraced Mid-Century Modern design for its simplicity, its attention to detail, and its openness.  Owners of Eichler homes in California, or houses designed by such architects as Fehr + Granger in Austin in the 1950s, extol the virtues of open-plan living.  The open plan is no longer unique of course, but good mid-century homes still exude an appealing optimism.  Such houses typically have a front facade that is somewhat private, with larger expanses of glass opening to yard and landscape at the back of the house.  These houses lend themselves well to modernization, because they still feel modern.

We recently completed Phase 2 of a remodel/addition to a 1950s house in West Lake Hills, outside of Austin.  Though the structure of the house paid homage to California early modern architecture, interior walls blocked views of the Wild Basin Nature Preserve to the north.  The kitchen was small, dark and cramped, and had no connection to the living space. 

Phase I of the Wild Basin Residence focused on increasing the transparency of the interior spaces, while retaining some structure to create layered views. Stainless steel countertops, maple cabinets and glass mosaic tile brighten the kitchen, which can finally look out the glazed living room wall to the nature preserve beyond.

A new smooth-troweled cement plaster fireplace surround updates the living room, while creating a textural contrast to the rough-laid limestone wall.

Phase 2 of the Wild Basin Residence comprises a new garage, patios, office, family room, and master suite. Design work focused on creating a connection between the addition and the site, and included a swimming pool.  The T-shape of the house creates a sheltered courtyard at the front of the house, while helping to reclaim the landscape in the back yard.  The old porch roof was removed, and a new "butterfly" roof added, bringing in more northern light and views.  The flagstones were replaced with a concrete porch, which presents less of a tripping hazard.  The wood tongue-and-groove decking reads as a continuation of the interior ceiling finish.

The builder, Brady Behrens of CasaBella Homes, had some good ideas (such as using thicker Hardi trim boards as siding to approximate the original redwood siding) and did a great job with the construction.

The addition exhibits the same post-and-beam mid-century vernacular as the existing house, with plentiful glazing to admit light and views. Painted hardi siding, galvalume roofing, low-E windows and cork flooring all contribute to the sustainable design. 

Another recent project transformed a non-descript 1950s ranch house into something more suitable for the young family who purchased the property.

The Ridgeview Residence comprises a "gut remodel" and addition to a house in the Zilker neighborhood. The remodel opened the kitchen to views of the back yard, improved circulation through the living spaces, and replaced outdated cabinets and interior finishes.

Skylights were added to bring more light into the interior of the house, and the wall between the kitchen and the living/dining area was removed.  A large kitchen island anchors the space and provides informal seating.  The single door and small windows that looked out onto the 1/2-acre back yard were replaced with sliding patio doors, which open onto the new patio and screened dining porch.

The existing garage was converted to a new family room, with a carport added to
the west.  The back of the garage was opened up with sliding doors to access the patio and pool beyond.  The garage remodel also accommodates a laundry room with access to the patio and an outdoor shower.

The garage door was replaced with a bay window, which looks out onto the landscaped front yard.  The end result of the project is a "modern ranch" that takes full advantage of its site.

While both the Wild Basin Residence and the Ridgeview Residence were fairly substantial remodels/additions, you can make your own "Mid-century" modern by following a few simple guidelines:

1) Create a connection with the site.  This could be as simple as changing out a solid door for one with glass, to allow views into the backyard or to the front porch.  Decks are also a great way to make the transition from inside to outside, and can be built relatively inexpensively.  If you need to build more than a couple of steps from the deck down to grade, make them wide steps that can also be used as seats.

2) Open up interior spaces.  Open walls with cased openings, or remove walls where possible to allow for layered views through the house.  This makes a house feel larger and less formal.  You can also replace solid interior doors with glazed doors, where privacy is not an issue.

3) Consider built-ins.  While it's true that you can't take them with you if you move, built-ins are a great way to give your house some character and maximize functionality.  They work especially well in a small house.

Thanks for visiting, please feel free to post questions or comments!


  1. Man, whose awesome house is that? Oh, wait — mine! Thanks, J.C., for your years of dedication to our project.


  2. Wow! I love your designs! I'm getting ready to purchase a drab 1950's ranch with (*shudder) shutters and trying to find ideas to transform the exterior to a clean MCM look that allows full appreciation of the gorgeous 1930's golf course in the front yard.